Welcome to my fifth grade RtI group. Seated at this table are four students who have spent most of their academic careers cycling in and out of various levels of reading intervention.
Seated at this table is Sara, the girl who spent last year traveling the states in an RV with her family, who washes her hair with pink dye shampoo every other day, and who can empathize the heart out of any story you give her. Here is James, who can make origami yodas out of post-it notes, who struggles to carry the weight of his depression on his 10-year-old’s shoulders, and who likes to give names to my dry erase markers. Next to James is Mateo, taller than me and a good bit wider but somehow the shyest fifth grader I have ever met. When asked to illustrate his dream house, he drew a potato with a door in it. Finally, we have Maisy. If anyone has a right to hate reading, it’s this kid. She has been in RtI for as long as she has been in school. But Maisy is also the girl who fills my whiteboard with motivational quotes, who dances down the hallway at the end of our sessions, and who rewrote the words to “Holly, Jolly Christmas” to congratulate me on my wedding.
Today, we are discussing a 16-page booklet we read last time about a Mexican folk tale.
“Is there anything else you guys noticed?” I prod.
“Honestly, this writer wrote something that didn’t interest me,” Maisy confesses.
The other fifth graders at my table stare at her in shock and horror. How dare she have a negative opinion about a book a teacher handed her? She cracks under the pressure and immediately starts to back-pedal.
“You guys,” I interrupt, “You don’t have to be interested in or even like everything we read in here. In fact, I’m reading a book right now that I don’t agree with at all.”
They looked at me like I had grown a second head.
If you’ve made it through some or all of high school, I know that you’ve been where Maisy was today. We have all begrudgingly read a Romeo and Juliet or a Twelfth Night or a To Kill a Mockingbird or a Brave New World.
Have I traumatized you enough, or shall I continue to name drop?
In twelfth grade, I hated Holden Caulfield, but I still look back on The Catcher in the Rye with fondness. As a protagonist, Holden was a selfish, unreliable, and extremely angsty little twerp, and I was glad to be done with him when Mr. Watson moved us on to the next book in the curriculum. However, five years later, and I still reference The Catcher in the Rye a handful of times each year, I still think about the ducks on a frozen pond, and I still can picture Holden’s recurring nightmare as if it were one of my own.
Why is that?
Why is it that a book that I did not care at all for has become one of my happiest memories of high school?
Rory Gilmore of the eponymous TV show Gilmore Girls hits close to home when she says in her valedictorian’s speech, “I live in two worlds. One is a world of books. I’ve been a resident of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, hunted the white whale aboard the Pequod, fought alongside Napoleon, sailed a raft with Huck and Jim, committed absurdities with Ignatius J. Reilly, rode [sic] a sad train with Anna Karenina, and strolled down Swann’s Way.”
I did not like Holden Caulfield, but I walked with him for 277 pages, and that is not easily forgotten. I did not appreciate some of his choices—or any of his attitude, for that matter—but by Jove, I learned from him. I walked a sad and tumultuous road with him, and I will never forget what life looked like to this blue-eyed, already-grey-haired 16-year-old.
We say that books have great power, but how often do we challenge ourselves with that power as adults? How often do we pick up books we know we will not enjoy or that we may not agree with and make ourselves read them anyway? How often do we ask ourselves to stretch as readers and as humans into someone else’s shoes now that there is no high school teacher telling us to?
“I’m reading a book right now that I don’t agree with at all,” I confide to my fifth graders, grimacing at the thought of The Fountainhead and just how many more chapters I’ll have to wade through to get to the end of it.
“Because even though I don’t agree with all of the characters or even the author of this book, I know there are people out there who do agree with them. And I can learn from this book how to understand and empathize with those people better.
You can learn something from everyone.”
What are you learning? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.
Sarah Hope is a West Michigan reading interventionist and writer who someday hopes to invent and obtain the position of a professional friend. She believes strongly in empathy, storytelling, and humans. You can follow her on Instagram at sarah.hope.97.